‘I’m not a person, I’m a fetish’

Dating in a hook-up culture can be a dangerous pursuit, especially so for trans women. Three activists who are members of the local community share some insight
MJ Rodriguez in hit TV series Pose, which focused on a group of trans women navigating the New York dating scene. Photo: JoJo Whilden, FX

When two men accused of murdering transgender woman Sion Grech walked free in January, the spotlight fell squarely on issues of trans and gender violence. The judgement, and the entire judicial process itself, came under fire for what many viewed as double standards in the treatment of trans women, with families of the victim saying that the system allowed lawyers to depict Sion as “a prostitute and drug addict” while shielding the accused.

The case highlighted what many trans women discover as soon as they start dating: in the quest for finding a partner, danger and hostility are never too far away. Although contemporary dating is challenging for all genders, trans women are often objectified and hyper-sexualised by potential partners, resulting in relationships that are dysfunctional at best and violent at worst.

Karly Naudi, a known activist who is vocal about trans rights, explains it this way: “Think of all the issues that cisgender women encounter while dating. Misogyny, aggression, objectification… trans women encounter these traits even more frequently and to a stronger degree.”

Blunt hookup requests are the order of the day, with a certain segment of men not shy to let a trans woman know that they’re up for sex, as long as she has the ‘requisite’ bodily characteristics.

“Again, the hookup culture transcends all genders, but for trans women it’s systematic. We even have a word for it – chasers. This is when a man is purely interested in you for your gender status. Nothing else matters, not your personality and to a certain extent, not even your looks. As long as you’re trans, they’re up for it,” Karly explains.

Is this really different from the hordes of young men who will simply send a cisgender woman unsolicited explicit photos? Yes, because trans women face an entirely different set of vulnerabilities from cisgender women. Karly remembers the time she went through this realisation herself.

“The one good thing about these chasers is that they’re usually easily spotted from a mile away. But then again, someone going through a bad time might gloss over the signs. It happened to me with a co-worker who had been pestering me to go out on a date with him forever. I wasn’t attracted, and I always refused, but at one point I was feeling especially vulnerable. I figured, you know what, this guy’s always been nice to me and full of compliments. I should at least try to go out with him once, even though I don’t really like him that way.”

The man didn’t take too long to reveal the one motivation behind pursuing her for so long, as he informed her that he was really happy to have finally fulfilled his desire to go out with a trans woman. Not unreasonably, the experience left Karly enraged and doubly wary about dating.

Amanda Cossai, another trans activist, explains the reasons why trans ‘chasers’ are problematic.

“Imagine having constantly had to face rejection, and suddenly someone who is super-nice to you, who is showering you with love and attention, comes along,” Amanda says, adding that she has seen people fall into the trap of being with partners who don’t really want to be with them for who they are. She has also seen the consequences that this can have on their lives and their self-esteem.

“It can be very hard to say no, because of the loneliness. I don’t blame women who stay in these relationships, but it always ends in a crash and burn.”

One major issue is that such relationships suffer from heavily skewed power dynamics, something that is highlighted by another trans activist, Shylo Sammut. Shylo describes how chasers will often try to stop a trans woman to fulfil her potential for being who she wants to be, particularly if she mentions undergoing surgery to continue her transition.

“A man who’s only with you because of your gender status will usually give you all the reasons in the world as to why you shouldn’t continue your physical transition. For them, the appeal is very specific and you end up being part of this dating arrangement just for the pleasure of the partner,” Shylo says.

Why would any woman accept that situation? The question shouldn’t really be asked, but victim-blaming is still a thing, so consider this a pre-emptive strike. Shylo’s answer is poignant and sobering.

“Trans women are more susceptible to settling for a dysfunctional relationship, because they’ll be thinking that they’re lucky to have someone who accepts them, and that they won’t find this elsewhere. This can happen to cisgender women, as well, but the incidence in the trans community is higher.”

Even when a trans woman actually dates someone who appreciates her on a personal level, there are other issues to contend with. Such as the level of intrusiveness that is deemed acceptable from partners, friends and family. Karly describes being subjected to what sounds like a rigorous interrogation session by the mother of a former boyfriend. Her potential mother-in-law wanted to know – among other things – intimate biological and sexual details.

“You wouldn’t think it’s okay to ask another woman these questions, so why is it okay to ask a trans woman about how her sex life works?” Karly says.

Shylo remembers going through the same ordeal when meeting her ex’s parents, having to answer a lot of questions that people wouldn’t usually dream of asking their son’s new girlfriend. Amanda says this is part of the reason she no longer dates regularly.

“Many trans people do end up dating each other, because it’s a safe space and they don’t have to deal with all the ignorance, and the questions. When you’re dating someone as a trans woman you end up being their teacher, educating them on every little aspect of your life. And you have to explain the entire thing all over again every time you meet someone new. It’s invasive, it’s tiring, and you are constantly dealing with it,” she says.

Is there a way to deal with all this? Karly advises young trans women to take it slowly when meeting someone new, so as to give time for the relationship to flourish naturally. In hindsight, she believes that her last relationship had moved too fast, with the couple moving in together after a few months and getting the families involved.

“This meant the honeymoon period was over very quickly. So don’t mesh your lives together too soon, or give up your own life. And keep an eye out for any warning signs that reveal he isn’t with you for the right reasons. Is he embarrassed to introduce you to friends, for example? If anything looks suss, it probably is.”

Amanda has another useful piece of advice: do join other trans and queer-adjacent communities as these will understand what you are going through and can help guide you. She concedes that one of the reasons loneliness is a huge factor in the lives of trans women is that the community is very fragmented.

“Usually you’ll have two or three trans women hanging out together, so there isn’t that wide net of support. There are a lot of complicated feelings among us, which also depend on external factors, such as where you are in the transition process. Society expects women to be feminine, but if you don’t fit those parameters you’re going to feel shame, and you’re less likely to be part of a community,” she tells me, adding that trans women who have been through all this will eventually put it behind them and move on, leaving the community without mentor figures.

The topic returns to the elephant in the room – the hyper-sexualisation of trans women, and how this impacts their intimate relationships. Amanda points out that this is the result of decades of misrepresentation in pop culture, with trans women invariably depicted as prostitutes or as another negative stereotype.

“This is changing gradually – we’re seeing that even on television, we’re moving away from the one stereotypical representation. But the old mentality takes time to change, even with people who think they’re inclusive. I remember going on a date with this guy who wasn’t giving off any worrying vibes, and appeared really supportive. For our first date he suggested a viewing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I know he wasn’t trying to be rude, but it was very revealing of what he thought he knew about trans people,” she says.

Shylo, however, goes straight to the point: “Men really fetishise trans women. That’s the main problem, plain and simple.” She is backed by Karly, who tells me that last year the term ‘trans’ was one of the most popular fetish searches on adult site PornHub.

“What does that tell you? That for many out there I’m not a person, I’m a fetish.”

More precisely, PornHub’s 2022 annual report that the trans ‘category’ is the seventh most popular one that users search for, and that it has grown by 75% throughout the past 12 months. This is the opposite of the normalisation that trans women strive for. Worryingly, it also reflects the exact same landscape depicted in the cult TV series Pose, which focused on a group of non-gender conforming friends in the 1980s.

The narrative includes two trans women – one is dumped by her male partner after she has gender affirmation surgery, while the other is also dumped because her boyfriend can’t take the scrutiny that arises when they go public with their relationship. It would seem that, 40 years on, cisgender men still find it difficult to treat trans women as life partners, rather than disposable sex buddies.

The pervasive hookup culture has a lot to answer for in this regard. Selfish dating behaviour has become normalised, facilitating bad behaviour when cisgender men don’t receive what they feel is owed to them. Given this dire landscape, it becomes easier to understand why trans women may decide to ‘settle’ for a relationship despite the red flags. This is something Shylo has promised herself never to allow to happen again.

“As trans women we need to believe that the bare minimum in a relationship is not okay. If I start dating again, I won’t be ignoring any red flags that’s for sure. Before, I would excuse anything that bothered me by putting it down to a bad day. Now I know that bad behaviour is there to stay,” she concludes.

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